Making Friends with My Reactive Side

“Don’t be reactive!”  “Be grateful!”  “Don’t operate from a place of fear!”  Other than the grim corona-related news, our media and social feeds seem to be filled with lots of people telling us how to “be” during this clusterf*ck state of affairs.  I’m guilty of this as I recently published Keeping Your Mind Virus Free, talking about how I’m using my values to guide my actions and keep from losing my sanity.

During that post, I mentioned how I’m using one of my values, curiosity, to explore what there is to learn about myself during this time.  For the past two weeks, under what at times seems like a house arrest, I have learned a lot.  What I found can be traced to a time, long, long ago (Feb 2020) and a place far, far away (Gaithersburg, MD).

“Back then,” I received a certification to administer the Leadership Circle Profile for the business owners and leaders I coach.  This is an assessment tool that is used to reveal a leader’s Operating System, highlighting their creative competencies and reactive tendencies.  Basically, the tool provides a snapshot view as to what is working for the leader, what isn’t working, and why.

For me, learning about the language of “creative” and “reactive” was somewhat new.  The Leadership Circle identifies your “creative” state as when you are leading strategically, thinking outside of yourself, and working for the betterment of your team, organization, community or world.  Whereas, when operating from the “reactive” dimension, we are protecting our self, taking shelter from the outside world, and assuming our place of comfort.  When we are in an extreme reactive state, we are more similar to our 3rd grade selves, solely focused on the “me,” wanting to take our toys and go home to our bedrooms.  If I’m being honest, I’ve seen this 3rd grade Dan on more occasions than I’d like to admit over the past couple of weeks.

When reactive, this “me focused” Dan will; more quickly snap at his kids, read excessive amounts of news with the intent to find something to get angry at, berate myself with negative self-talk, and judge more frequently.  Not one to usually stress eat, I have often found myself reaching for 5-month-old Halloween candy like it’s my job.  Basically, this Dan isn’t the best version of myself.

During my training in February, the Leadership Circle identified 3 reactive dimensions and 11 tendencies.  They are:

  • Complying (Heart)
    • Conservative – measures the extent to which the leader thinks and acts conservatively, follows procedure, and lives within the prescribed rules of the organization
    • Pleasing – measures the leader’s need to seek others’ support and approval in order to feel secure
    • Belonging – measure’s the leader’s need to conform, follow the rules, and meet the expectations of those in authority
    • Passive – measure’s the degree to which the leader gives away his/her power to others and to circumstances outside of his/her control
  • Protecting (Head)
    • Distance – is a measure of the leader’s tendency to establish a sense of personal worth and security through withdrawal, being superior and remaining aloof, emotionally distant, and above it all
    • Critical – is a measure of the leader’s tendency to take a critical, questioning, and somewhat cynical attitude
    • Arrogance – measures the leader’s tendency to project a large ego – behavior that is experienced as superior, egotistical, and self centered
  • Controlling (Will)
    • Autocratic – measures the leader’s tendency to be forceful, aggressive, and controlling
    • Ambition – measures the extent to which the leader needs to get ahead, move up in the organization, and be better than others.
    • Driven – it is a measure of his/her belief that worth and security are tied to accomplishing a great deal through hard work.
    • Perfect – is a measure of the leader’s need to attain flawless results and perform to extremely high standards in order to feel secure and worthwhile as a person

My assessment showed that my highest reactive tendency was “ambition” in the controlling dimension.  After seeing this, my first thought was, “what’s so wrong about having a lot of ambition?”  While there isn’t anything wrong with our reactive tendencies (if a car is getting ready to smash into you, your reactive side is going to keep you alive!), too much reactive tends to limit effectiveness, authentic expression, and empowerment.

Recently, my ambition has been fired up in all sorts of ways.  After reading an article about our country’s shortage of testing kits, ambition says, “come on Dan, f*cking do something about this!”  After reading a story about people suffering and dying in New York, ambition says, “go to New York and help!”  After hearing about our President’s desire to get everyone back to work by Easter, ambition says, “you should be leading our country Dan!”

Of course, these thoughts aren’t entirely productive and are merely me reacting to a situation I can do little about.  My ambition, getting the better of me, puts me back in a 3rd grade state of mind and usually leads to the anger, judgement and/or eating discussed above.

Somewhere in childhood, I learned that having ambition can lead to a place of safety.  I used this ambition to find success in school, sports and then later with my career and development of businesses.  Knowing that my ambition has given me much in life, I am trying to give “it” the love it deserves, while also letting go of the reactivity that it ignites within me.  This understanding didn’t come easily, and my previous approach was to fill my mind with more hateful thoughts that would lead to more reactivity, more anger, and ultimately a lot of sadness.

I have no expectation that understanding how my reactive side has been showing itself over these past couple of weeks will lead to blissful happiness during this pandemic. With that said, this increased awareness can lead to additional space. Space to decide whether to react or whether to just let it go and be as I was before.


Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.

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